Coming down the escalator at El Cerrito BART last Wednesday afternoon, I heard jazz. It sounded live, but musicians were nowhere in sight. Had BART started piping music into its stations along with its public safety and elevator messages? Out in front of the station, the surprising source of the music appeared: Five young people—three saxophonists, a trumpeter and a drummer—were swinging away.
A man standing in front of the group—the tenor sax player’s dad, as it turned out—handed me a leaflet and told me that they were there to advertise the Portola Middle School Department of Music’s Jazz Explosion VII concert and fundraiser, to be held March 20 at Mira Vista Golf and Country Club in El Cerrito. Portola’s three jazz groups will perform; KCSM Music Director Chuy Varela will be the Master of Ceremonies; and the young artists will be joined by professional musicians Larry de la Cruz, Marvin McFadden, Jeremy Steinkoler and Wayne Wallace.
Portola Middle School is part of the West Contra Costa Unified School District. The school district pays the salary of the Portola music teacher, Tiffany Carrico, who also teaches the school’s three concert bands. One hundred ten of Portola’s 620 students choose to participate in the school’s elective music classes. Portola’s jazz activities are funded by the City of El Cerrito’s After-school Program. Each jazz band rehearses three times a week, with practices both scheduled at 7:15 a.m. and after school.
“It’s a huge commitment for the kids,” says Carrico.
It’s also a commitment for their parents. Jazz Explosion VII is a project of the Portola Middle School Music Parents’ Association, an all-volunteer group of about 80 families.
“Parents are crucial,” Carrico told me. “My parent group is great.”
This year, says Association Co-Chair Diane Egelston, the group has a budget of $25,000. Proceeds from Thursday’s concert and from the association’s other events fund everything from sheet music to reeds to field trips. Every year the two Portola’s Jazz Workshop and the Jazz Ensemble go to the Reno Jazz Festival, where thousands of young musicians attend workshops and compete for honors. Members of the Jazz Band sometimes go along as “roadies.”
“We charter a bus,” says Egelston, “and pay the $1,200 entrance fees.” The Music Parents’ Association also pays for students to attend Cazadero Performing Arts Camp. Egelston says that they “send all of our kids who want to go.”
Egleston’s 13-year-old son, Aidan Brorsen, is an eighth-grader who plays first trumpet in Portola’s Jazz Ensemble, first trombone in the Jazz Workshop and first trumpet in the advanced Symphonic Band. Music, says his mother, “gets to a different part of the brain. It allows [Aidan] to explore mathematics without thinking about it.”
It also provides kids with “a common purpose” that offers opportunities for both teamwork and personal creativity, she says. One person “takes the lead and then fades back into the background ... We have some very shy performers, but when they get beind their instruments, they shine.”
The coordinator of Thursday’s Jazz Explosion event, Jose Umali, is another Portola parent who waxes enthusiastic about the middle school’s music program. Teacher Carrico, he says, “relates really well to the kids.” Indeed, the “kid” playing trumpet at the BART station was Carrico herself, who, at 41, looks far younger than her years.
Umali’s daughter, eighth-grader Caroline Umali, plays first tenor sax in the Jazz Ensemble and clarinet in the Portola advanced Symphonic Band. Like Egelston, Umali thinks studying music aids other kinds of learning. Pedagogical benefits aside, “if you join a band,” he observes, you have “an automatic group of friends.” And music is “something you can do for the rest of your life.”
It was Umali who came up with the idea of Portola jazz musicians playing at the BART station. “We want to show off,” he says. “We want El Cerrito residents to know that we have a really good public school jazz program.”
For the same reason, the Jazz Explosion show is being held at the Mira Vista Golf and Country Club. “It’s a private club,” says Umali, “but it’s local.” Community recognition matters because West Contra Costa Unified School District “doesn’t have a huge tax base.”
At Portola Middle School, “there are very few instruments that can be loaned” out to students. “A good used student saxophone,” Umali notes, can cost $1,000 to $1,500.” He would like to raise enough money to make the music programs at Portola accessible to all families and then to make it possible for the kids in those programs “to flourish.”
At a time when the arts have been deemed a frill by many misguided policymakers, and when public education in general is under the budgetary axe, any public middle school music program that can field one jazz group, let alone three, deserves congratulations and all the support it can get. “The quality of musicianship [at Portola],” says Egelston, “is unreal.”
See and hear for yourself this Thursday evening.
JAZZ EXPLOSION VII
7 p.m. Thursday at Mira Vista Golf and Country Club, 7901 Cutting Blvd., El Cerrito. $20 adults, $10 students (6-18), children 5 and under free. More information: 417-5896, firstname.lastname@example.org.